We had an amazing response – with more than 27 thought leaders responding to our question, and counting! The conversation will continue at Food+Tech Connect on Wednesdays, but be sure to also check out the contributions by the amazing bloggers, ranchers, startups and academics below. You can also join the conversation by joining us on Twitter (using the hashtag #foodtech), on Facebook, and on Google+.
Our food system is not broken- it is poorly designed. But before thinking about redesign, we need to really understand how the current system works. Doing so requires the ability to examine the different pieces of the system and supply chain, something currently impossible given the proprietary nature of the food and agriculture industries.
For decades, “technology” in agriculture has meant machines and chemicals – bigger combines, stronger pesticides, and now, genetically engineered seeds. Now, “technology” based on the sharing of information – data extracted from all points along the food chain – is helping to create a more transparent, equitable, and environmentally sound food system. But thus far, “information technology” remains focused primarily on a very narrow set of needs, and much opportunity remains.
I think we can take advantage of social networking to spread the gospel of good meat and to educate people about food. Tools like facebook are very powerful and have such great potential to help unravel the confusion of the marketplace. But for ranchers like myself, we are far too busy to also get online and also run this kind of website or create the technology to do it. Maybe that’s a business for someone else, but it would help the industry a lot.
Lately I’ve been talking with some funders and investment advisors who are researching the most promising tech investments. Short answer: it’s hard to know for sure, and, in my opinion, the state of the industry requires a lot more systemic thinking about solutions than just tech tools on their own. Nonetheless here are my quick picks.
Organic, sustainable food needs to become more affordable. Why is it expensive? Organic agriculture is inherently economical: it requires few inputs and it doesn’t deplete scarce resources. The problem is that demand for organic food is growing faster than supply. Technology can help make healthy, local, sustainable food more affordable by focusing more on the supply chain.
During an age when any worldly fact or detail can be found on the Internet with just the click of a button, it’s no wonder technology has infiltrated its way into all industries. The food industry is no exception, and many new ways to find out about food news and facts are being created every day. As a chef, it astonishes me to think how far the culinary industry has advanced since I started cooking over two decades ago, from food media and information sharing to actual cooking processes that have been perfected through technology.
Technology is helping what is already a blossoming industry, the industry of food. Food has become a major part of the US economy and I would hope that through technology and awareness we will see more farm to table, more communities around food, more small purveyors with a strong loyal customer base and more people sitting around their table with friends and family enjoying a good meal.
We can think about how to hack the food system through both pragmatic and applied innovation, and also through imaginative and critical engagements with agriculture and food. One of the questions I’m interested in is: How can sensing and robotics technologies support small-scale agriculture?
Today our technological progress is more focused on the flow on information as opposed to goods. It’s not about moving hard goods faster or centralizing operations for the sake of efficiency; it’s about sharing information faster and allowing even highly distributed people and sets of activities to work together efficiently. In one of my all-time favorite insights the author Michael Lewis said, “By its nature the Internet undermined anyone whose status depended on a privileged access to information.” While this is becoming increasingly true in many fields, it is finally becoming a reality in the food industry.
We can use data infrastructure help us create and consume wholesome, delicious food. We need to use it to understand the failures and vulnerabilities of our current food system, and to build a more robust one alongside it. It’s all possible right now. Let’s do it!
The food system is inextricably interconnected. The same companies that we buy our typical American dinner food from are involved in production and marketing of foods all around the world. Using technology and hacking the hard data of the global food trade, production, and consumption is absolutely essential for us to be able to understand how our own eating habits ARE effecting the world around us.
It takes millions and millions of tons of food to feed a city. Somehow, enough milk and produce and soda makes its way to, say, Los Angeles; somehow it all gets distributed — frequently unevenly. But no one actually knows where all that food comes from, who’s buying it, and from where.
My hope is to slowly bring to light the personal and unique flavors of the American culture and, in doing so, not simply create a more authentic narrative of our food culture, but also create awareness of the unique flavors, habits and emotional connections within communities. It is, in a sense, a metaphorical meal, a “Story Corps for Food”, around which we can gather, exchange and listen to diverse points of view.
I believe that we will start to see a new factor: social food cooperatives. Social tools will lead to an alternative food system to the extent that people choose to spend more time involved in the production and distribution of food. This does not mean that everyone will become a full-time farmer, but average people will begin to dedicate more time to local food production and distribution than they have in the past 50 years. This could entail growing food in a greenhouse with five other families, working at a food coop, or keeping chickens on the roof of your New York City brownstone and trading eggs for produce with neighbors.
The digitization of food has ensured a critical mass of content surrounding many, but not all of the food choices we make. Web and mobile restaurant platforms provide recommendations down to the dish. When it comes to recipes you can take your pick from behemoths to emerging startups. Even with the perfect instructions how do you know which canned tomato is the best to make that sauce recipe? While we can read about the nutrition and make common sense decisions about ingredients thanks to package labeling, there’s no way to tell the quality of the product by looking at the package.
The future of urban agriculture is not vertical, nor even simply horizontal. It is distributed and networked throughout the city. In a growing number of cities, suburbs,and small towns, community groups and entrepreneurs have discovered innovative ways to harvest and grow food, using interconnected networks of relatively small plots of public and private land and shared resources. In the process, they are forging novel relationships among producers and consumers.
We live in a backward world. A world where it is strange to know where our food comes from. Foods that are grown and processed without adulteration have to prove it, while the use of chemicals and manipulation do not have to be disclosed. Information and technology on the other hand can contribute to a better food system by eliminating information asymmetry. It only takes a couple of times choosing something you know the provenance of to remind you that it is actually bizarre to NOT know the source of your food.
Our food system has much to gain from getting more people actively involved in cooking regular home meals from fresh ingredients. More “mindshare” means more people invested in the quality of their food and voting with their wallet. It means a larger customer base for local and sustainable food products, and fewer consumers of factory-made, pre-packaged food. It leads to more people, together, sharing and enjoying a meal they’ve made with their own hands. And that certainly beats the microwave.
Much like the Arab Spring spreading across the Middle East, a youth driven movement has emerged in the United States dedicated to bringing the consumption of food back into the home. These new change-makers are smart, moving fast and having a real impact. From web-focused solutions harnessing the power of digital information to rooftop gardens creating uber-local produce, an assault on the entrenched food status quo is gaining momentum.
To make lasting change in the agriculture and food sector, we need to prioritize two things: farms’ profitability and the affordability of food for households. We need to shift the balance of the consumer dollar to the farmer – the participant in the food system that serves the most critical function, takes on the most risk, and makes the choices that have the largest influence on the environmental, nutritional, flavor, and quality profile of the food we eat. The best way to do that is to give farms a way to sell their harvest directly to individuals.
his “interoperability” between data systems is the key to hacking the food system, since GS1 standard data formats are used between proprietary systems where agricultural products are marketed. This does not require adding a second barcode, like a QR code, to the product packaging.
This year we witnessed first hand the power of open source tools to quickly spread the word about food system policy and planning. When Sedgwick, Maine passed the first food sovereignty ordinance, Grown in the City created a map so that others could track this trend and see the start of a growing movement. We were surprised at how quickly the story spread, revealing the power of online tools to share knowledge in ways that delight users and inspire others to take action. The “food” crowd is definitely ready for more interaction with the “tech” crowd in the years to come.
By cultivating local connections among consumers and producers of fresh, sustainable food, Eat Well Guide helps you hack your diet through access to healthy locally grown food. Together with the spirit of independent farmers, businesses and other socially responsible partner organizations, Eat Well Guide’s collaborative technology harnesses the power of the web to effect social, environmental and economic change, mapping the route to a more sustainable food system.
People are increasingly aware of the pitfalls of our current food system. The question is, how do we fix it? One of the most powerful things we can do is change the way we eat. Everyday, we are given the opportunity to change the food system by voting with our wallets and our forks.
Most recipes are static lists of ingredients and instructions. They can help you make one really yummy dish, but that’s it. If you want to double a recipe, you have to do the math yourself. If you have to make a substitution then you have to find that information elsewhere and incorporate it yourself. And if you’re trying to make dinner from three separate recipes, good luck trying to organize all those steps into one coherent plan of action. I would never expect a cookbook on my shelf to do any of those things for me. But an iPad? A laptop? A smartphone? Oh, yes. I want it to double quantities and make substitutions based on my dietary needs. I want it to merge three different recipes into one step-by-step plan. I want it to recommend new dishes based on what I like. I want it to plan out my meals for the week using only things on sale and in season. I want every recipe to have a button that says “Buy ingredients from local farms,” and then have it suggest more recipes based on the leftovers.
Commodity Cropism, a multi-channel video installation, uses the trope of stylized commercials to expose veiled information about three of the largest industrial agriculture crops: corn, soy, and sugar. They are also crops highly subsidized by government funding. The project seeks to arm the public with data left out by loosely monitored food production and labeling systems.
While vertical farms will eventually be able to supply much of the produce for urban centers on demand and at a reasonable cost, the concept does not address the issue of food for those who need it most and cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods, for example. In other words, how will everyone who needs to benefit from this new agricultural strategy be served, if vertical farms need to show a profit at the end of the day? Governments have been the lowest common denominator with respect to basic rights and privileges of their citizenry.